New physics, art class this interim

Everyone knows of the ambiguity of Mona Lisa’s smile, but fewer know that this ambiguity is caused by the interplay between the spatial frequency of the painting and the arrangement of rods and cones in the viewer’s eye. This is exactly the kind of content students will explore in the new Interim class, Physics 116: Light, Vision, and Art.

Professor James Demas described the course as, “an introduction to vision science through the lens of visual art.” The course begins with a study of the nature of light and its interactions with matter. Next, students will learn about the anatomy and psychology involved in the nervous system’s responses to, and perceptions of, visual stimuli. These concepts will be applied when students analyze works of art to identify the phenomenon at play. There is also a laboratory portion of the class where students will learn to use the technology and techniques of vision science. The class culminates in a final project that includes the production of an original work of art that highlights principles of vision science in a creative way.

When asked why such an interdisciplinary class belongs in the physics department, Professor Demas said a class about light and matter with physics at the core is not out of place, even with the incorporation of so much art and neuroscience. He said this kind of class is possible because “the physics department at St. Olaf has a big picture view of the field.”

The fact that, according to the syllabus, “there are no formal prerequisites, but foundational experience in studio are or art history will be valuable” speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of the class and its suitability for non-science majors.

Professor Demas is excited to get into the classroom with “students who experience vision empirically but not through vision science.” He went on to say that “anyone interested in visual art should consider taking this course as a way to explore a topic they know from a different perspective.”

This physics class exemplifies St. Olaf’s idea of a liberal arts education, and it is a good opportunity to explore the overlap between the arts and the sciences. People often think that physics and studio art have nothing in common, but Professor Demas is passionate about the way connections between each field can provide meaning and context for the other. Physics 116 promises to give students a glimpse into the hidden science in treasured works of art and the unexpected artistry within the mechanics of perception.